Cook Street School of Culinary Arts, the downtown program that offers curricula for home cooks as well as budding professionals, recently offered a class in pickling and canning. I'd been to the school a couple of times years ago for corporate team-building events, but this time it was just my wife and me with a roomful of strangers. In about three hours, we learned about safe and sanitary methods of producing shelf-stable preserves and made pickled onions and cucumbers and two jams -- strawberry and tomato. We canned the strawberry jam and pickled onions for long-term storage, while the other preserves went home in plastic tubs destined for the refrigerator.
I was most impressed at how the fear and mystery of preserving fruits and vegetables was dispelled by enthusiastic and knowledgeable chef/instructor Erin Boyle and a guest teacher, professional pickler Tyler DuBois of the Real Dill. The energy level was good, and the instructors kept the class engaged, while in the background assistants tidied up and prepped additional food for our dinner (which was included in the cost of the class), leading me to think about how the school was run and who's behind the smooth-flowing kitchen.
It turns out that man is John Parks, executive chef instructor of the culinary program at Cook Street. After class, I met up with him to talk about the school, his career and how Cook Street fits into Denver's food scene.
Parks has been working for Cook Street for almost nine years, but he got his start there as a student. He was looking for a place to gain some serious cooking skills after attending Kennedy High School, playing in a few bands and working a series of dead-end jobs in his twenties. "It's not stuffy, but I liked the integrity that I wasn't seeing in other schools," he says of his decision to enroll at Cook Street; he intended to open a catering business or build a career as a personal chef. "Both of my parents were teachers, but I was feeling entrepreneurial. I didn't see teaching in the cards."
But Cook Street hooked him with its hands-on approach, restaurant-style setup and dedication to "preparing students for what's actually out there," as he puts it. After finishing classes, he never left -- instead signing on to teach recreational classes for home cooks for more than five years before becoming an instructor in the professional program.
Parks has enjoyed both aspects of teaching; the amateur classes appealed to him because of "the immediate gratification," he says. "Seeing the impact on their lives is really cool." For the professional program, he likes how students work together (with no more than eight students for every instructor) toward a common goal: "There's nothing to hide behind. At the end of the day, we sit down to a meal we've prepared together."
Parks's approach to teaching centers on a passionate enjoyment of food. His curriculum focuses on the basics -- knife skills are big -- as well as grounding in French and Italian technique and a plunge into wine education, especially how wine relates to food. But he also insists that learning technique and letting the ingredients speak for themselves are not mutually exclusive. The school uses organic produce wherever possible and brings in whole pigs so that students can learn meat fabrication, charcuterie and other curing methods -- Parks mentions ham and duck prosciutto -- and make the connection between the raw foods and the final products.
"It's important to not have things exist in a box," he adds. Students learn to make rye bread from scratch before using it to assemble Danish smørrebrød, a kind of miniature open-faced sandwich; they take a more intensive version of the pickling class I took; and they get hands-on experience making fresh and smoked cheeses. Parks gives me a sample of fresh gjetost (a caramelized Scandinavian goat cheese), explaining that students had to simmer the milk for two days for optimal caramelization. When I ask if using a pressure cooker would speed up the process, he jokes, "We try to focus on methods used before 1850."
Keep reading for Chef Parks's favorite restaurants and least favorite food trends.
Parks also mentors students through "restaurant week," where they get a full "front-door-to-back-door" experience of setting up a restaurant, preparing a menu -- "with guidance," the chef emphasizes -- and receiving inventory from suppliers before cooking and serving dinner to neighborhood guests. Because many of Cook Street's students are older and have goals other than heading straight to a restaurant kitchen after graduation, there's also a focus on the business aspects of food production. "Costing out food and designing a hypothetical business is important," he says, because those skills prepare students who are interested in going into business for themselves.
Because of this -- and to bridge a gap between home cooks and budding professionals -- Parks is also considering adding a "boot camp" style of instruction that would be longer than the one-day recreational classes but less intensive (and expensive) than the current professional curriculum. This would appeal to people with time off during the summer, people looking to switch careers, or retired "bucket-listers" who could engage in a four-week immersion program.
Parks is gratified to see his students move on in the fast-growing Denver restaurant scene, citing Il Posto, Panzano and the Brown Palace as top-notch eateries where his graduates have landed. He's also seen former students move into careers as wine merchants, caterers and personal chefs. His home town is "a completely different city than it was [when I was] growing up," he says, especially when it comes to restaurants. "There's a lot of talent in this city right now...the push is on training," he notes, emphasizing the need to keep a growing pool of restaurant employees sharp. And despite the growth, downtown "still feels 'Denver,' except for the parking," he says.
Although Cook Street keeps him busy, he still finds a little time to dine out. He's currently impressed with Beast + Bottle and Bittersweet; Table 6 is a longtime favorite. For guilty pleasures, Parks lists Frito pie and, as a Denver kid, green chile -- of course.
For Parks, there's a connection between dining out and educating future cooks. "I could live in a world without sliders," he says with a smile. "Bacon and sriracha are also low-hanging fruit." He admits that while he loves them both, those ingredients are too easy to rely on as a cook. Instead, he encourages students to build their palates beyond salt and fat: "A well-rounded eater is a well-rounded cook."
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At Cook Street, it's easy to see why someone could come in for classes and end up staying for a career. The kitchen is gleaming and professional, with high-BTU gas stoves and mountains of equipment for mixing dough, rolling out pasta, slicing meats. But it's also open and spacious, because it must accommodate a crowd of students all trying to learn and cook. The space lacks the high-stress atmosphere of a cramped restaurant kitchen, and there's an air of serenity -- except, perhaps, on "lobster dispatch day," as Parks calls it, when students spend a day learning what it means to turn live animals into food. And Parks is serene, too, as he focuses on that passionate enjoyment of food and continues to refine and expand his curriculum. "I'm happy being here," he concludes. "My goals and Cook Street's are simpatico."